The recurring forest fire in the oil palm concession area of Sumatra causing massive haze and air pollution has certainly added another issue to Western environmental NGOs.
The 200 hotspots detected, mostly in the province of Riau, represent Indonesia’s highest rate of deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) from land use.
No doubt anti-palm oil lobbyists and green activitists are having a field day over this latest turn of event while Indonesia, the world’s largest palm oil producer, is trying its best to contain the hotspots.
While Malaysian oil palm growers sympathise with the plight of their peers in Indonesia, some have voiced their concern over the spillover effect from the forest fire to Malaysia, which is the world’s second-largest oil palm producer.
There were concerns that oil palm planters in Malaysia might again be labelled by Western NGOs for being equally irresponsible – by resorting to open burning as a short-cut method to clear land for oil palm cultivation.
In the past, some Malaysian plantation companies with big operations in Indonesia had been accused as culprits to forest burning in the republic.
It is important to note that oil palm plantation companies and even smallholders in Malaysia had been adopting zero-burning policy for quite sometime.
In Malaysia, even though the Government had strictly imposed a ban on open burning in 1998, the practice of land clearing for oil palm sector by clean-burnt method has been largely replaced by no-burn method from 1993.
The idea was initiated in 1989 when large Malaysian plantation companies began developing zero-burning technology because of their own environmental concerns.
Many had come to realise that apart from preserving the environment, no-burn land clearing added benefits through nutrient recycling, soil improvement, faster plantation establishment and cheaper cost.
In addition, the zero-burning method was in response to persistent haze back in1990s that peaked in late 1997. Since 1998, a stricter regulation carrying a hefty maximum fine of RM500,000 were imposed on open-burning offenders.
On the other hand, perhaps one lesson learnt from the recurring forest fire in Indonesia is that local oil palm players should continue to double their efforts in surveillance to avoid similiar mishaps from happening in their estates, given the global climate change.
Another suggestion would be to encourage more environmental NGOs to join the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) grouping to familiarise themselves with the strict sustainability criteria imposed on plantation companies wanting to be certified as sustainable palm oil producers.
Currently, whether or not faced with constant pressure from the NGOs, more oil palm plantation companies and countries, including Malaysia, have allocated funds to protect the endangered wildlife habitats and preserve the forest for the sake of the environment.
The author is the Star’s deputy news editor Hanim Adnan. Hanim believes it will be an ongoing battle between oil palm companies and NGOs when dealing with environmental issues.